Can you imagine a Westfield without cars and a highway? While we have lived a lifetime with them, it wasn’t too long ago when residents depended on trains and trolleys to travel through Westfield and Chautauqua County. Many families who have spent generations in Chautauqua County have fond memories of taking trains or trolleys to Jamestown, Buffalo, Erie and beyond.
We are reminded of our history as we prepare for our “Polar Express Day” event, taking place this Saturday, December 5. Families with children can expect to enjoy snacks, crafts and activities that will center around the movie The Polar Express. Preparing for this event brought us back to talk of when trains roared through Westfield and Chautauqua County. To celebrate Polar Express Day, we took a trip up to the archives to look back on what life was like before cars took over.
Westfield was a prime hub for trains in the area. It’s station, which still stands as an art gallery on English street, was a connection for both New York Central and the Jamestown, Westfield, and Northwestern Railroad Company. In 1892, the train line connected Westfield firsthand to the aftermath of the Civil War when Abraham Lincoln’s funeral train stopped in Westfield.
The New York Central line is actually still in existence today through Amtrak, though it no longer makes any stops in Chautauqua County. That line directly connected Westfield to Buffalo and Erie. The success of intercity trains around the country paved the way for expansion and soon, Westfield became an end destination on the trolley line, built by the Jamestown, Westfield and Northwestern Railroad Company.
The first trolley car arrived in Westfield on October 4, 1903, over 100 years after the town was originally settled. Residents of Westfield were able to take the trolley to Jamestown, with stops in every town in between including Mayville, Hartfield, Lakewood and more. In the early 1900’s, passengers were able to make the trip from Westfield to Jamestown in approximately an hour, according to the timetables. The engines were remarkably impressive in the early 1900’s, geared for speeds of 50 to 60 miles per hour.
The route was soon referred to by riders as “America’s Scenic Route.” Going along the route, passengers were able to sit, relax and enjoy the views of riding along Lake Chautauqua and finishing off their ride with a speedy descent down Mayville hill into Westfield. For those who have walked, hiked, or snowmobiled down Rails-to-Trails and the Chautauqua Gorge, know exactly why this route was praised for its scenery. In a text describing a trolley ride from the Fenton Historical Society, the author of the text, Homer L. Danielson, once said about the route:
The area was heavily wooded and, to say the least, awe inspiring. This is indeed one of nature’s wonders.
The route was quickly a success. On January 6, 1909, the Westfield Republican wrote, “Westfield is now one of the best villages in the state as far as transportation facilities is concerned.”
The success led to an expansion of Westfield’s infrastructure. In 1909, the line was extended to Barcelona. By the early 1920s, 18 round-trips a day were made between Westfield and Jamestown. It also led to the construction of the Main Street bridge that allows easy access to downtown Westfield over the gorge. The bridge, which was rebuilt in the 80s (which you can see briefly in this Youtube video of Westfield in 1987) remains today.
To fill in the gaps for train service, taxi services appeared around Westfield. A horse-and-buggy taxi would shuttle Westfielders and their luggage down to the local train stations. The service would remain a success and could be found at the corner drug store in downtown Westfield, or for an extra charge, would pick passengers up at their homes. The service was also known for its reliability.
The trolley would not last as long as the main railroad lines. As the highway system was built, and car companies grew, buses and cars became the norm for transportation. The final interurban train made its final run from Westfield to Jamestown on November 30, 1947, almost 70 years ago. Soon after, the New York Central Line would no longer make stops in Chautauqua County.
Just like that, a way of life in Westfield changed. But for many, a dedicated love for rail lives on. On South Gale street, close to the Chautauqua Canine Rescue, lies a rail-watching park. Many Westfield residents don’t know of its existence, but many around the country do.
In 2014, Rail Pace Magazine noticed how popular the site became. Imre E. Quastler, a professor from San Diego, wrote the piece detailing the park. The piece picked up traction and brought in visitors from across the country. One website, Railfan Locations, added the South Gale street location to its index of sites that range from Fullerton, California to Homewood, Illinois to Locust Grove, Georgia. Considering how many regions of the country the site covered, we wanted to find out what made Westfield such an interesting location. In an email, the site’s owner, Charles Holzer, said there were several reasons. For one, about 60 trains, of all types, pass through Westfield in a 24-hour period. Second, the location of the park is not only set up well for photography, but is a peaceful location. Holzer said,
The peaceful surrounding makes the photos really stand out. There is nothing ugly in the backdrop. The train horns add to the experience. Many that enjoy the hobby are attracted by the sounds, power and size of the trains. Others that visit maybe recalling past memories of loved ones that once worked for a railroad, or remember a train ride they once took, some others just stop to see what the park is all about.
Taking a trip down to the train park reveals a segment of Westfield that loves to enjoy the 60 plus trains that pass through the town in a 24-hour period. It also reveals a segment of people not from Westfield. When visiting the park for this blog post, there was a man from Canada, another from North Carolina and stories of those who visited from all parts of the country including Florida and Texas. The park had an unintentional start. One of its most active visitors is Robert "RJ" Auger, who started visiting the site to watch the trains. At the time, RJ said the site was a "jungle of weeds, garbage and railroad junk." Very quickly, the park grew in visitors. In the past ten years, the park has been significantly cleaned up and now boasts picnic tables as a seat to enjoy the sight.
Despite the size of Westfield, it is interesting how much can be learned of about the town in the past and even the present. As time passes, we can continue to appreciate the rich history of Westfield and Chautauqua County. This history is just a glimpse. There is still so much available to uncover and learn, even in our own archives. We hope you enjoyed this brief history of trains in Westfield and hope you will venture to the library to discover more. For more information about archives, call us at 326-2154 and ask for Nancy Ensign.